Discoveries – An Important Imperial commode and secrétaire à abattant En SUITE

Typifying the style and high-quality work made by the esteemed ébéniste Bernard Molitor (1755 1833), this commode and secrétaire à abattant en suite share many characteristics from his oeuvre. Such aspects include their restrained, yet monumental form, their tapering pilasters above carved lion paw feet, the use of a burr elm veneer over a solid oak carcass, combined with the finest gilt-bronze mounts. Among close comparisons by and attributed to this leading Empire ébéniste is a mahogany commode stamped B. Molitor, of circa 1803-5 as well as an attributed mahogany commode of 1802 in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, respectively illustrated in Ulrich Leben’s definitive monograph, Molitor, Ebéniste from the Ancien Régime to the Bourbon Restoration, 1992, p. 180, cat. no. 19, and p. 181, cat. no. 21. As here, the latter two combine similar gilt-bronze female term heads above angular supports and carved lion paw feet, the same lion head ring handles on each of the three drawers as well as a simple marble top above an equally restrained frieze.

Detail – Magnificent Mercury Gilt Ormolu Mounts

Exceptional Gilt Bronze Mounts

The Classical female term busts fitted to tapering angular supports, are very similar to examples by Molitor, as documented in Ulrich Leben’s definitive monograph, Molitor Ebéniste from the Ancien Régime to the Bourbon Restoration. These mercury gilt mounts were probably supplied by Pierre-Philippe Thomire or Claude Galle. 

Detail – Richly carved mahogany feet

Bold Solid Mahogany Carved Paw Feet

Selected for its colour and superb carving properties, the front feet are of richly figured mahogany. Highly angular in form, with boldly carved details, they relate directly to Molitor’s oeuvre. 

Detail – Opulent burr elm veneers from England

Rich, Magnificent Burr Elm Veneer

Noted as Napoleon’s favourite veneer, burr elm was imported from England. Look closely to see the intricate application, where hundreds of small sections are assimilated so perfectly that you can barely see the joins. 

As one of the leading ébénistes of his day, Molitor combined originality and individuality to accord with changing fashions. He also took great care in selecting his mounts. The latter were supplied by the very finest bronziers of the day, such as Pierre-Philippe Thomire and Claude Galle, who were responsible for some of the bronzes adorning pieces made by Molitor for Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Jérôme, King of Westphalia, 1808-13. As noted, Molitor often featured finely chaste female heads or busts above pilaster supports, of which seventeen different models are known. Some, for instance, reflected the Egyptian taste as featured on a mahogany console of 1803, most probably used by Napoleon’s mother Madame Mère and now in the Château de Musée de la Malmaison. The present terms, which feature Classical maidens, are almost identical to those on a pair of Molitor consoles from 1803 as well as an attributed secrétaire à abattant, c. 1806-10 (illustrated respectively ibid, p. 99, pl. 95 and p. 147, pl. 149). Whilst the lion head handles are typical of Molitor’s furnishings, the escutcheons, combining two outward facing monopodiae lions, are not. However, their design was characteristic of the early Empire period and almost certainly derived from designs by Napoleon Bonaparte’s chief architects and ornamentalistes Charles Percier and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine.

Ornamental designs by Charles Percier and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine with monopedia, winged lions and sphinxes.

The escutcheon plates from the commode and secrétaire à abattant en suite, reveal how a design such as a temple/object could easily be redeveloped. Similarly, the escutcheon mount and drawing have floral detail and strong classical mask references.

One of the most significant aspects here are the crowned Imperial eagles on a thunderbolt at each corner of the gilt tooled frieze around the green Morocco leather writing slide. This is a very rare feature and indicates that the secrétaire and its matching commode must have been made for someone within Napoleon’s immediate circle such as Jérôme, King of Westphalia or Madame Mère. After he was crowned Emperor in 1804, Napoleon adopted the eagle as his nation’s new emblem and incorporated it into his coat of arms. As an attribute of Jupiter, the supreme mythological Olympian god, the eagle clutching a thunderbolt denoted power. The emblem often featured on Roman military banners, especially during Caesar’s reign, whose Imperial rule Napoleon aspired to emulate.

Born in Luxembourg of German parents, by at least 1778 Molitor had settled in Paris where he was received as a maître in 1787. Having secured several royal commissions, he survived the Revolution and later secured orders from the Directoire, the Emperor Napoleon, his family and immediate circle as well as a number of important private patrons including the duc de Choiseul-Praslin. Since he rarely stamped his work, including furniture made for the King of Westphalia, many authentic pieces from Molitor’s oeuvre can only be attributed. In contrast, those pieces made by him as a special commission from Napoleon in 1811, were all stamped and included, as here, two gilt bronze mounted burr elm veneered secrétaires à abattant and matching commodes.

We are extremely grateful to Alice Munro-Faure for researching these magnificent pieces.

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